Louise Fitzhugh died at the age of 46. By coincidence, this “biography” of Harriet the Spy is being written 46 years after its first publication. Fitzhugh will never grow older, but Harriet appears to be here for the long haul. How can we account for the meaning that Harriet the Spy holds for so many readers, and the continuing relevance of this children’s book to adults?
One answer can be found in the personal stories that adults, particular women, tell about reading Harriet the Spy and the permission it gave them to explore aspects of themselves. I posted a query to my Facebook page:
For a school project on Harriet the Spy (course is History of the Book) I am looking for your stories about you and Harriet. Did you dress like her? Buy a notebook and scribble in it? Sneak into places you shouldn’t have? More recently, have you read the book to children or returned to it for your own reading?
This note received 30 comments in short order. Friends also referred their friends, emailed me longer messages, sent me scans of their spy journals, and discussed recipes for egg creams. Not all the responses were strictly positive about Harriet. Some have ambivalent feelings. Sarah wrote:
Well, as you know, I love Harriet. But I don’t remember much about my response to her as a kid. When I re-read it recently, I was surprised at how dark it was, and how Harriet was kind of a jerk. I mean, I love her, but she is flawed, and Louise Fitzhugh lets her be flawed. When I was a kid I kept journals and lists of friends, best friends and enemies (for seven years!) but I am not sure that Harriet is responsible for that. I was just a little neurotic.
And Eve wrote:
this book has always haunted me, and I did return to it as an adult reader, but I could never identify with Harriet as a young reader, mostly because I could never maintain anything like her level of concentration or span of attention, but also because I could not sympathize with her cruelty
As these answers indicate, Harriet is compelling, whether or not she is someone we emulate. But my interest lay more with the sub-set of Harriet’s readers who find in the book permission to do something or be someone. Readers seem to have spontaneously responded by keeping a journal, observing (“spying on”) people, and behaving in less feminine ways through clothing or activities. I found several stories in articles and on the web which indicated this was a widespread reaction to reading the book, and the stories my friends sent in indicate that it is probably more common than we think (see the blog on the front page of this web site). Boys also had some truck with Harriet. Fitzhugh’s friend, the poet James Merrill, with whom she had shared a brief affair before they both returned to homosexual pursuits, wrote a tribute for her after her death which encapsulates this identification:
Never would there be a heaven or hell,
We once agreed, like those of youth.
Louise, if you’ve learned otherwise, don’t tell.
Just stick to your own story,
Humorous and heartrending and uncouth.
Its little tomboy damozel
Became the figure in our repertory
Who stood for truth.
(quoted in Cook)
There has also been an acknowledgement among writers and scholars that Harriet, though herself not necessarily an image of a lesbian child, gives support to gender-variant children. (“Purple Socks,” Dodds, Horning, Bernstein)
If the character of “the boy with the purple socks” is a coded message to gay readers, perhaps Harriet’s tomato sandwiches reach in a different direction. As a child, I thought Harriet had invented tomato sandwiches and took it as evidence of her uniqueness. This is not the case, however. Tomato sandwiches are a regular part of the menu of the American South. (footnote) Though Fitzhugh escaped the south eagerly, taking care to alter her accent, and leaving instructions that she was to be buried north of the Mason-Dixon line (Nordstrom, 384), the presence of this quintessentially southern dish in her Harriet the Spy may have been a coded message to southern children who, like herself as a child, felt at odds with her surroundings. In the era in which Fitzhugh was writing, taking an anti-racist stance as she did pretty much necessitated leaving the south. Or the tomato sandwiches could be read the opposite way. Southern children might find in shared food items a way to identify with Harriet in spite of other cultural differences between themselves and her.
In addition to these particularized groups of readers, though, Harriet has become iconic to a general reading audience. Through some extraordinary effect created by, perhaps, the accretion of details that fail to add up to a simple portrait, Harriet is widely adored and recognized. The New York Times has on two separate occasions included Harriet’s neighbourhood as an important landmark in maps of literary New York. The first time, in 1974, it appears in a map of summer reading for young people set in Manhattan. (O’Connell) Thirty years later, she was included in an interactive online map of literary neighbourhoods. (Cohen and Holmes) Harriet the Spy is the name of a now-defunct band playing in the “post-punk, emo scene” during the 1990s, according to the band’s MySpace page. The reason the name was chosen is not clear, but one of their CDs was called “Unfuckwithable,” which displays a certain attitudinal consonance with Harriet. (footnote)
Karen Cook calls Harriet “an insider who writes like an outsider, subversive because she is part of the privileged classes.” The same could be said of Fitzhugh. Perhaps therein lies the fascination.
Cook, Karen. “Regarding Harriet: Louise Comes in From the Cold.” Village Voice April 11, 1995: 12ff.
Purple Socks: A Louise Fitzhugh Tribute Site. http://purple-socks.webmage.com/index.htm
Dodds, Katherine. “Harriet the Spy: A Hero for the ’90s.” Ms. July/August 1996: 80-81.
Horning, Kathleen T. “On Spies and Purple Socks and Such.” Horn Book January/February 2005: 49-52.
Bernstein, Robin. “‘Too Realistic’ and ‘Too Distorted’: The Attack on Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy and the Gaze of the Queer Child.” Critical Matrix 12(1-2) (Fall 2000): 26ff. Reproduced in Contemporary Women’s Issues (Gale) in 4 parts.
Lemonette. “Weird Food” (video).
O’Connell, Margaret. “Young Explorers’ New York.” New York Times July 14, 1974: 271.
Cohen, Randy and Holmes, Nigel. “A Literary Map of Manhattan.” New York Times June 5, 2005. http://nytimes.com/literarymap
Harriet the Spy’s MySpace page. http://www.myspace.com/harrietthespykentohio
Suzuki Beane’s MySpace page. http://www.myspace.com/swingwithsuzukibeanetm